In this lesson, we discuss the social conflict approach to deviance, including the connection between deviance and power as well as deviance and capitalism. We also discuss the difference between white-collar and blue-collar crime and define corporate crime and organized crime.
Social Conflict Theory
What social patterns exist between social classes and what problems are caused by the conflict between them? How does social class affect deviance? These are questions asked by sociologists when considering the social conflict theory. Social conflict theory is all about inequality in society. It proposes that laws and norms reflect the interests of powerful members of society. In other words, social order is maintained through competition and conflict, and the 'winners' - those with the most power and the greatest economic and social resources - benefit by taking advantage of the 'losers.' We discuss social conflict theory several times throughout this class, as it is one of the major sociological theories of how society operates as a whole. In this lesson, though, we'll focus on what this theory suggests about deviance.
First, the theory suggests that who or what is labeled as deviant depends on who has the most power. The relatively small 'power elite' in our society are much less likely to carry the stigma of deviance than anyone else. Even if they are suspected of deviant behavior, the powerful have the resources to resist deviant labels. Consider a scenario where a rich CEO of a company and a struggling factory worker both commit the same crime. We'll say that they were both caught in possession of illegal drugs. Which person do you imagine will be more severely punished? It's likely that the CEO has the resources to get off lightly or at least to keep it quiet. The factory worker, on the other hand, is likely to receive full punishment and have his criminal deviance advertised.
White-Collar vs. Blue-Collar Crime
The comparison of these two individuals leads us into a discussion about white-collar versus blue-collar crime. These types of criminal deviance get their names from the traditional dress of the person committing that style of crime. White-collar refers to the traditional button-up dress shirts worn by powerful businessmen, usually paired with a tie. Blue-collar refers to the uniforms worn by average workmen in factories and shops.
So, as the name suggests, white-collar crime is committed by people of high social positions, frequently as part of their jobs. White-collar crimes typically don't involve violence; instead, they are generally money-related and include embezzlement, business fraud, bribery, and similar crimes. Many of these crimes go unknown to the public. Blue-collar crime is committed by the average working American. Blue-collar crimes range from violent law-breaking to thievery and are sometimes committed as a way to improve living conditions. They are usually highly visual and are more likely to attract police to the scene.
Again, social conflict theory is all about inequality, so one of the most important differences between these two types of crime is the fact that the punishment for committing them is disproportionate. For example, a more likely criminal scenario involving our factory worker and CEO would involve the factory worker vandalizing a local business and the CEO committing serious fraud to avoid giving up part of his wealth. The factory worker committing vandalism has committed a blue-collar crime. If caught, he would be fined and probably arrested, possibly even spending several months in prison. The CEO committing fraud has committed a white-collar crime. Even if someone calls him into question or he is caught, he would likely only receive a slap on the wrist. A government study found that, as of 2009, those actually convicted of fraud were punished with a fine yet ended up paying less than 10% of what they owed by hiding some of their assets.
Corporate vs. Organized Crime
There are two other types of crime that run parallel to white-collar and blue-collar crime but are committed by entire organizations instead of just individuals. Corporate crime refers to illegal action by a company or by someone acting on its behalf. It ranges from knowingly selling faulty or unsafe products to purposely polluting the environment. Parallel to white-collar crime, most cases of corporate crime receive little to no punishment and many are never even known to the public.
There is also organized crime, which refers to illegal goods or services being provided by a business or group of people. It includes selling illegal drugs, fencing stolen items, loan sharking, and more. Most people would probably associate organized crime with the mafia. While the mafia is a good example, they are not the only criminal organizations. Organizations that commit organized crime differ from other businesses in their heavy regular involvement in illegal activities and their almost routine use of bribery and violence. Parallel to blue-collar crime, those who have fewer legitimate opportunities are more likely to participate in this type of crime, and for those who are caught, punishment can be severe.
Let's use our CEO and factory worker again as examples. The CEO is head of a company that frequently dumps hazardous waste into a nearby lake. This example of corporate crime is usually punished through fines and/or restitution. If incarceration is involved, sentences typically involve 12 months or less.
The factory worker is employed by a business that is being extorted by a gang that demands money from the company for 'protection.' This is a common example of organized crime, where the gang forces someone to do business with them. Members of criminal organizations that are convicted can receive severe punishment, spending many years in prison.
Deviance and Capitalism
Beyond criminal deviance, social conflict theory also suggests that anyone who interferes with the operation of capitalism is likely to be labeled as deviant. Remember, deviance includes not just criminal behavior but also any behavior that goes against social norms. Capitalism is based on individual productive labor and private control of wealth. Therefore, many people think anyone who does not work is somehow deviant, even if that person is incapable of working. They also look down on anyone - particularly the poor - who threatens or steals the property of others (especially the rich). Capitalism also depends on respect for authority figures and structure, so anyone who resists authority or challenges the status quo is likely to be considered deviant. For example, imagine environmentalists protesting outside of a factory. Throughout history, protestors have been considered deviant (even if only mildly deviant) because they fight against the status quo.
In summary, social conflict theory is all about inequality in society. It proposes that laws and norms reflect the interests of powerful members of society. It suggests that who or what is labeled as deviant depends on who has the most power. The relatively small 'power elite' in our society are much less likely to carry the stigma of deviance than anyone else. For example, punishment for white-collar crime, which is committed by people of high social positions, is much less severe than for blue-collar crime, which is committed by average working Americans, sometimes as a way to improve living conditions.
Likewise, punishment is less severe for corporate crime, which is illegal action by a company or by someone acting on its behalf, than for organized crime, which refers to illegal goods or services being provided by a business or group of people. Beyond criminal deviance, social conflict theory also suggests that anyone who interferes with the operation of capitalism - such as the unemployed or those who challenge authority or the status quo - are also likely to be labeled as deviant.
Key Terms and Vocabulary
- Social conflict theory: proposes that laws and norms reflect the interests of the powerful members of society
- White-collar crime: crime committed by people of high social positions, often as part of their job (examples: embezzlement, bribery)
- Blue-collar crime: crime committed by average working Americans (examples: theft, robbery)
- Corporate crime: illegal action by a company or someone acting on its behalf (examples: selling faulty products, purposely polluting the environment)
- Organized Crime: illegal goods or services being provided by a business or group of people (examples: loan sharking, selling illegal drugs)
- Deviant: In social conflict theory, a label given to anyone who interferes with the operation of capitalism
Once you've finished this lesson, you should be ready to:
- Summarize social conflict theory
- Contrast the typical reactions/punishments for white-collar vs. blue-collar crime as well as for corporate vs. organized crime
- Discuss the relationship between deviance and capitalism in social conflict theory